Purity and Outreach
The Shakers were a religious group, an offshoot of the Quakers who shared much in common with their Friends. Like the Quakers, the Shakers believed that they had a personal connection to God that manifested itself through trembling. The Shakers took it further, though, believing that their shaking was the departure of sin from their bodies. Like the Quakers, the Shakers believed strongly in equality. The Shakers simply carried it further, into (successful, small-scale) communism. And where Quakers believed in bringing God into everyday life, the Shakers believed in excluding all that was not godly. They wanted purity.
The Shakers got what they wanted, as well. They lived their lives mostly segregated from the rest of the world. Segregated from each other, as well, since purity, to them, meant no sex.
As you can imagine, a sect without sex has something of a recruitment problem. The Shakers never grew beyond a few thousand members, and without being able to indoctrinate from birth, they’ve shrunk to somewhere fewer than a dozen members currently. They’ll die out soon. For all intents and purposes, they already have.
While the Shakers did have a disproportionate affect on U.S. music and design, that’s a topic for a different post, one on art and children perhaps. The more important point here is that they’re gone–and why.
One of the most amusing things about watching the Republican party turn into a purity movement over the last couple of decades, maybe the only amusing thing, was the realization that purity movements are, by definition, self-limiting. Not only do they define themselves by what they are not, but they’re rarely content with yesterday’s definition of pure. The Shakers escaped that, maybe because they valued equality so thoroughly, maybe because of where they started(!), but most groups that value purity above all else start to get competitive about it.
Generally, however, purity movements either abandon their quest for purity in favor of rewarding in-group status (see the treatment of recent Republican infidelity revelations) or they splinter into tinier sects, some still obsessed with purity, others offering various loopholes (see the Mormon polygamist groups).
None of these outcomes are anything I want to see for any group I’m involved with, so I twitch when I see someone trying to draw, for example, simple lines between what is and what is not feminism. And when I say twitch, I mean I tell y’all about it.
Most recently, I’ve been twitching about these big, overlapping groups of rationalists and critical thinkers who are out here fighting the good fight against various forms of irrationality. I was talking to Genie Scott on the radio in the midst of the accommodationism debate. I watched people recommend that anti-creationists withdraw from Bloggingheads because it had given insufficiently critical air time to creationists. And all too often, I see people dismiss naive, ignorant questions with the same contempt they expend on proselytizers and the peddlers of woo.
Are we turning into our own purity movement? It wouldn’t be difficult to do. We do, after all, value accuracy. There are places where, ethically, we need to draw hard, fast lines. And we have better evidence that we’re right than most of these other purity movements. It would be terribly easy to draw harder, faster lines, excluding those who don’t meet our standards for accurately portraying the most current evidence for…well, anything really.
In fact, the accommodationism debate seems to be working very hard to head that direction over a question of words. Yes, that’s right, words. Which ambiguous, context-dependent words are used to most accurately capture the weird, diverse, sometimes irrational and illogical way the mind works has become an issue of utmost importance. Descriptive words are becoming fighting words.
We can do that if we want to. No reason rationalism can’t have its own academic slapfights that mean nothing to the rest of the world. No reason we can’t splinter into tiny sects. No reason at all…except that it means losing sight of one of our major goals–education.
See, here’s the thing about education: it’s progressive. We start with the simple, the general, and build from there. Take reading. While significant numbers of children can easily learn to read using a whole-word method, the evidence has grown that the most sure way to teach almost all children to read is intensive work in phonics.
This means that we teach them that “a” sounds one way in “car” and a different way when an “e” is added to make “care.” This gives them the tools they need to decipher the vast majority of “a” sounds. What we don’t do is bring up words like “career” before they’ve got the basics down. In order to be accurate, the rule would have to be that a vowel sound is short when alone and long when followed by an “e” except when…or in the exceptional cases of…. But this just isn’t helpful for the new reader.
Rational thinking is progressive as well. It is most decidedly not something we’re born to. If it were, there’d be no need for all the outreach that we do. We would never have to teach the difference between anecdote and data. We would never have to caution against confirmation bias or uncritically accepting authority. We wouldn’t have to point out when our skeptical spokespeople are trading on their reputation for skepticism instead of in skepticism itself.
Even in those last cases, we counter fact with fact to show that the situation cannot be so simply stated. We don’t declare that those who overstate their own degree of critical thinking to have put themselves outside the realm of critical thinking or to be a danger to critical thinking in general. We simply point out that no one is perfectly rational about everything, label the situation as a prime example and move on with our common goals of increasing general levels of rationality and decreasing the harm that the hucksters can do.
Am I saying that we should never argue with the educators over their means? No, no more than I’m saying that each of us must always take the time to fully answer naivety (although this person could use some reading material if someone has links handy) or that those of us with multiple avenues to reach a broad public should never abandon one as annoyingly cumbersome.
I am saying that it’s a very big, irrational world out there, and that we should be wary of choosing our targets based on the fact that they will listen to the arguments we make. In many ways, our allies are the easiest people to argue with, just because they care about the same things we do. They are not, however, where the biggest gains in rationality are to be made. That comes from reaching out to the people who have several steps to take before they would even register on our rationality meters.
And there is our choice. Rationalists are a finite resource. So is the energy we can dedicate. We can spend it reaching out to the (often oblivious and sometimes annoying) general population, or we can turn it on each other until we are all cleansed of irrationality and imprecision. I know which requires the greatest work, and I know which one I’ll choose every time.
Let’s just say I’m not with the Shakers.
This entry was posted on Friday, September 18th, 2009 at 1:22 pm and is filed under Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.